No Fluffy Distractions
Here's a new idea. Instead of creating a love story using contrivances, cliches, and misunderstandings, concentrate on the feelings of the characters and the emotional development they go through. David Gordon Green isn't likely to win over the romance audiences who look for fluffy distractions with his recent Sundance entry All the Real Girls, but he will please those who like their relationship movies honest, realistic, and understated.
All the Real Girls feels disarmingly unambitious -- it's simply a story of two young people awkwardly falling in love in a small North Carolina town. It handles its tale with small, intimate strokes -- we observe the progress of Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel's (Zooey Deschanel) relationship in punctuated moments. Scenes are constructed out of a furtive meeting in an alley, a night at a motel, a conversation while bowling, and so on. Other scenes illustrating their environment and the people around them are interspersed throughout. The film doesn't really have a beginning and it doesn't really have an end. It's as if Green just swooped us in for a visit, let us get to know two particular people well, then swooped us out.
The film's greatest strengths lie in the way it handles the the two major complications of the featured relationship. From its inception, Paul realizes he has a problem -- he has a reputation for treating women as sexual objects, and he has fallen for the sister of his best friend Tip (Shea Whigham). Tip is not happy with the thought that Noel may become Paul's next victim, and the situation builds up to where a major confrontation is inevitable. However, the movie does not allow this to be its focus -- after much steam has been let off and things are out in the open, Paul and Tip's lives continue on the naturally stumbling course life usually takes. As Paul's sincerity in his feelings for Noel becomes less of a novelty, the original issue just sort of dissipates in the way one would expect it to in real life.
The second complication, which occurs about two-thirds into the film, results from an action by one of the two lovers that directly affects the other. Again, honesty is used in the place of convenient plotting -- the situation is handled with all its natural ugliness and confusion. No neat resolutions await at the end; however, the ending does come together as a reflection of the events that have happened and as a display of the growth experienced specifically by Paul.
For all it does right, All the Real Girls could have been even better. It chooses to concentrate on the portion of Paul and Noel's lives during the span of their relationship; what this means, however, is we have to take Paul's background as a womanizer wholly on faith. As played by Schneider, Paul comes off as sweet and perhaps somewhat immature for his age, but he hardly comes off as capable of being the unfeeling jerk his reputation makes him out to be. Given his tenderness towards Noel, quick scenes of his past women recalling being used and tossed aside are unconvincing. He is also described as being one of a group of guys that spends most nights getting drunk. Again, this must be taken on faith -- Paul doesn't appear to be nearly as insensitive or stupid as the friends he hangs out with, and we don't see him drink much until complication number two occurs. If part of the movie is trying to show us how Paul convinces himself that being with Noel makes him a better man, it falters in not being able to show us how much room he had to improve.
Also, the film chooses as most of its subject prototypical small-minded, beer-drinking, go-nowhere males. Aside from this not being a particularly fresh stable of characterizations to work with, I often find myself feeling distanced from it -- a personal bias, I admit.
These issues, however, remain mostly side-effects for a movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do. All the Real Girls is a snapshot of the lives of two people. We are offered a glimpse into gears that turn when that strange mixture of youth, substantial attraction, inexperience, and confusion combine to form a first love. Hopefully, that's not more than the usual movie "romance-seekers" are prepared to embrace.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for language and sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.